that lead beneath brambles to the bodies and minds of others

Death of the MothThe book jacket is designed by Vanessa Bell, sister to Virginia Woolf. Her drawing for the front of the jacket is of trees and grasses, many black pen lines pulling and curling in vortical movement, little differentiation made between figure and ground.
Shelley Hirsch was in London for a short stop and we talked of stream-of-consciousness, her speech by way of illustration of the process and its importance to her singing suddenly branching into organic, unpredictable storylines that in their density came close to Vanessa Bell’s drawing. Shelley then talked about an essay she had come across at the beginning of her life as an improvising singer: Virginia Woolf’s Street Haunting: a London adventure. Woolf sets out to buy a pencil, the excuse to immerse herself into human life, its grotesques, the passing snatches of its exchanges, its glimpsed scenes, overheard chatter, press and movement within the atmospheres of the city.
I told her I knew the essay well. I have a copy in The Death of the Moth, collected essays published by the Hogarth Press in 1942, tattered now, barely retaining its book jacket by Vanessa Bell. Woolf urges walking as an opening of the senses but the movement is through streets and over river into the strange digressions of her own mind. Nothing in life repeats. “The sights we see and the sounds we hear now have none of the quality of the past,” she wrote (and this was in 1930); “nor have we any share in the serenity of the person who, six months ago, stood precisely where we stand now.” She experienced all of these bodies as a potential dissolution of the self: “Into each of these lives one could penetrate a little way, far enough to give oneself the illusion that one is not tethered to a single mind, but can put on briefly for a few minutes the bodies and minds of others. One could become a washerwoman, a publican, a street singer. And what greater delight and wonder can there be to leave the straight lines of personality and deviate into those footpaths that lead beneath brambles and thick tree trunks into the heart of the forest where live those wild beasts, our fellow men?”
After the conversation, Shelley and I walked over the road to Cafe Oto’s project space to hear a septet of string players: Jennifer Allum, Bruno Guastalla, Guillaume Viltard, Hannah Marshall, Tim Fairhall, Angharad Davies, Ute Kangiesser. They present themselves in a horseshoe shape in that order, from left to right, taking half the building; the other half occupied by a small audience so predominantly made up of improvising musicians – myself and Shelley, Steve Beresford, Eddie Prévost, Marjolaine Charbin, John Chantler, Daichi Yoshikawa – that a mirror septet is within the bounds of possibility, should anybody wish to suggest it.
I listen closely for a while, studying the sandbagged air-raid shelter ambience of the Project Space. Then as Guillaume squeezes a second bridge between the fingerboard and strings of his double bass I open my notebook. Sometimes to write is to listen closer, if only because each moment of listening and observation demands a fitting language but also suggests its own digressions. Angharad flicks the strings of her violin and I think of school and those incidents of minor bullying when a bigger boy flicks his victim hard to the head or arm with an audible pop. From outside we can hear a loud Jamaican voice. Periodically trains pass close by, their rushing metallic roar wadding the room like an abrupt influx of iron filings within which the music’s flinty intensity is momentarily buried. Can we talk about surface and depth, a constant movement of small cries, whistle tones, dark notes and silver? I am struck by the sight of so much grained brown wood – two violins, three cellos, two double basses – and how the swirling grain is a static echo of the physical movements out of which musical form is developed. Sliding, striking, flicking, muting, bounding, abrading, tapping, snapping, drawing and pulling. The angularity of an arm moving according to its nature as a hinge. The spring of horsehair held in tension. A bow moving elliptically, as if stroking the stomach of a placid bear.
Then there is the doing of nothing, inactive, silent, looking up at the corrugated plastic skylight or down at the floor. Ideas move in contagions: bass sneezes; cello catches a cold. Shouts penetrate the sandbags from outside. Many years ago these would have been bothersome. Now the music absorbs whatever infiltrates its space (already the bodies and minds of others). Then a sudden cessation during which quieter voices can be heard from the street; a long pause, intensity trembles in the air until released by subtle shifting of body language. The heart of the music falls silent once more, covered as it must be by the brambles and thick tree trunks of ordinary living.

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Automatic writing

IMG_1470Robert Ashley’s death last week gave me the odd feeling that I should have been listening to more of his music. Absurd really, to self-impose a kind of obligation to consume. The truth is I loved his work but never felt much of a compulsion to listen to the recordings. They seemed beautiful shadows of something genuinely new, something he spoke about, wrote about and enacted: a different way of being within music.

He was one of the few composers of his generation (and subsequent generations) who fully understood that after Cage, electronic music, free jazz, pop music, happenings, proliferating media and all the rest of it, you couldn’t just carry on as if nothing untoward had happened, making your ‘experimental’ music with all the formal constraints and solemn ritual still in place. There’s an interesting essay Ashley wrote for the CD release of Alvin Lucier’s Vespers and other early works (New World Records, 2002). You can’t hear Vespers on a recording, he says, because the experience of hearing the music comes from the space in which it’s performed. He also talks about attempts to subvert the concert hall or redesign concert halls specifically for experimental music, as if it’s going to stand still for another hundred years to please the architects. He talks about fire marshalls. Basically, if you think you’re being subversive but at the same time pleasing the fire marshalls then you’re not subverting much at all.

A lot of composers and musicians shared that sentiment for a while but then turned away into less problematic territory – back to the 19th century or to a vision of jazz bars as they were prior to the 1940s, wherever their spiritual home might be. Robert Ashley worked out ways to make a piece that could be heard on television, or heard in a public space as if you were in a hotel room alone, hearing some other guest’s discarnate mellifluous speech rhythms coming through the adjacent wall and by putting a glass up to the wall and listening hard you could eavesdrop on this man’s muffled monologue about the particles of life, recited to the accompaniment of a radio broadcast by Liberace or one of those early New Age composers from Los Angeles, but Liberace after his audience has departed the building and his secret deepest vision of a cosmic music is finally given a silence in which to float like a voluminous sun bed on a Hollywood pool.

There was a stillness or stasis about Ashley’s pieces that demanded some new venue for listening that just doesn’t exist. In a way, television (arguably the most important medium of the 20th century but a wasteland for almost all composers) was the best way to encounter what he did, a box in which dreams spewed forth as if mind itself; now television is pretty much dead in the aether so there’s a moment that won’t come back.

IMG_1467In what setting should music be experienced? The question resurfaced, as it does in every exhibition that demands listening, while I walked around Cevdet Erek’s Alt Üst exhibition at Spike Island in Bristol (15 February to 13 April 2014): the video of his fingers attempting to tap out a sonic translation of a timeline of life-related events; the measures, markers and cycles alluding to sound’s temporality; the rooms called Üst and Alt – day and night, up and down, high and low, heaven and underworld. Blue LED lights and bass beats measure time in the murky claustrophobia of Alt, and in the dazzling sky light of Üst, a cardiac pulse of a low beat emanates from under the feet as if seeping upwards from the underground below. All of the ideas within the exhibition came together in that moment of being within the shock of daylight, the emptiness of a room, sound coming from elsewhere.

Later that afternoon (04.03.14), I gave a talk at Spike Island about music and time, playing tracks like Joe Hinton’s “Funny How Time Slips Away”, Sly Stone’s “In Time”, Felix Hess’s frog recordings from Australia, an exceedingly slow, sacred Javanese gamelan from Jogjakarta (“Sekatan Kyahi Guntur Madu”), Arpebu’s “Munsta from Kavain Space” and Ryoko Akama’s “Jiwa Jiwa”, created on the Max Brand synthesiser during a composer-in-residence programme at IMA in Austria. Ryoko’s recent CD – Code of Silence (www.melangeedition.com)  – gives no information about the latter piece other than its title so I asked her for some thoughts. Her return email spoke about sine waves and beat frequencies, sustained tones, other worlds with the emptiness of sonic ‘surfaces’ and an aesthetic that arises not from duration but the complexity of listening and its context and conditions.

She translates “Jiwa Jiwa” as “slowly but certainly happening”, giving the example of finding a water leak coming through the ceiling, the stain gradually growing in circumference: “You might say – it is getting jiwajiwa there, water is permeating jiwajiwa.” So the sound is a type of sculpture (maybe like the slower kinetic sculptures of the 1960s by Pol Bury, Gerhard von Graevenitz and David Medalla); change is taking place but at a rate that is hard to discern, closer to stasis than movement.

In the same week (07.03.14) I gave a talk in the Royal College of Art’s Vocal Dischords symposium, using the technique of automatic writing I’d tried once before at Bristol Arnolfini’s Tertulia – Writing Sound event, a set-up in which I write without a script and whatever I write can be seen on screen by the audience in real  time. The question of whether automatic writing is possible in these circumstances becomes part of the performance, not least in the sense that fluidity of so-called inner thought is hard to realise except in private. The pace is slower than speech, more stilted or inhibited by observers, subject to error and revision. At one point I played an extract from Robert Ashley’s Automatic Writing and in that heightened, stressful atmosphere heard it as unvoiced thoughts bubbling out of the eyes like soap, seeping slowly from the pores of a face.

For all I know this live performance of writing may be painful to watch but it comes, in part, from an active questioning of spontaneity in improvised performance, along with a questioning of the voice-as-sound, the droning seducer that transmutes ideas into theatre (or so it hopes). What are voices in the head? In pursuit of the origins of spontaneity in 20th century music I have been reading largely forgotten writers who experimented with automatic writing and what William James described as stream-of-consciousness. Mary Butts is one of them, an author whose short and turbulent life included the largely thankless task of assisting Aleister Crowley with the editing of Magick in Theory and Practice. Her novel Armed With Madness (1928) opens with a sentence that makes you want to love it – “In the house, in which they could not afford to live, it was unpleasantly quiet.” A description of listening and silence as uncanny and occult follows, not dissimilar to passages written by Virginia Woolf at almost exactly the same moment in history.

Dorothy Richardson by Man Ray

Dorothy Richardson by Man Ray

Dorothy Miller Richardson is another. Her Pilgrimage series of 13 novels, the first published in 1915, was a meticulous, if highly selective recording of a life, each instalment given an enticing title, each of which could be the name of a film I would pay to see: The Tunnel, Pointed Roofs, Honeycomb, Deadlock, Revolving Lights, The Trap, Dawn’s Left Hand. The protagonist – Miriam – lives a modest, unspectacular  life. In The Tunnel (1919) she is ecstatic to be renting a dingy room that gives her some measure of independence. Time barely seems to move, yet the cycles of life, day and night, the cruel measurement of work and time off, drudgery, disgust and tea, the tasks to be performed at a given time within the patterns of her job, her walks through a London that feels both hostile and magical, the surging and ebbing of feelings, convictions, confidence and often silenced opinion open out, fold upon fold, light and dark as she learns how to live and finally to write. The reader is caught in the streaming of this interior monologue (as Richardson liked to call it), absorbed, like Robert Ashley, in the particles of life: “As she began on her solid slice of bread and butter St. Pancras bells stopped again. In the stillness she could hear the sound of her own munching. She stared at the surface of the table that held her plate and cup. It was like sitting up to the nursery table. ‘How frightfully happy I am,’ she thought with bent head. Happiness streamed along her arms and from her head. St. Pancras bells began playing a hymn tune in single firm beats with intervals between that left each note standing for a moment gently in the air.”

An ordinary life; a dull life even, yet the polyphony of emotions and sensations is hallucinatory in its measured precision and accumulation of bliss: “The lecturing voice was far away, irrelevant and unintelligible. Peace flooded her.” Why do we have to spatialise time, sound and thought, reducing all three to a manageable linearity and locus that has nothing to do with the way we think or hear? Because they are elusive, everywhere and nowhere. The pouring of thoughts, thoughts under thoughts and other inexplicable murmurings of consciousness may take place in a dark room of the imagination within the body as if a kind of ectoplasm gushing out of some hidden spring and dispersing into nothingness, into the blood or becoming a sound recognisable as audible words, the marks of writing or some other signs on or from the body.

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Who will go mad with me

sheep wind fence copyWe were on Dartmoor, Brent Fore Hill at Ball Gate to be exact. The date was the 29th July, 1971, though there was little evidence of summer to be heard in the howling wind. During the same year I was given access to the BBC Sound Archives. Among the treasures of that vast collection was a song from Barra by Mary Morrison, an ecstatic Gaelic clapping song whose title was printed in English – “Who Will Go Mad With Me” – an invitation to entrancement I assumed at the time, given the song’s shamanistic repetitious circularity, the singer’s breathless air of abandon and a ragged communal accompaniment of voices echoing her lead, whooping at the joy of it.

In reality it seems the madness referred to romance rather than trance, a song about boys, a tease, a release shared by women after a hard day of waulking the tweed. But an inherent sound, its uncertainties and disturbances, a more than historical remoteness for which the crude reverb added for unknown reasons at a later date seemed to locate Mary Morrison and her companions deep underground in chthonic ritual space, all of this complemented by the surface noises of its transfer onto crackling 10” vinyl, then the hiss of my cheap mono cassette machine, a layering of effects converging into a tangibility of being in a place both known and unknown as if to form a shadow or echo, which is how a recording might be described, of the pagan moor, its legendary mists and bogs, its standing stones and bleak horizons leading not to 20th century roads and seaside towns but to the edge of the world. We were walking and marking places as if building a henge without form, Marie Yates placing fragile sculptures of twigs and muslin, their life as short as the temper of the weather (http://marieyatesblog.wordpress.com/). I was marking invisible boundaries with flute sounds carried away by the wind. Field Workings, Marie called these activities, and that is how they seemed – walking and working from within the self and under the sky, deeply private even though conducted on open land and documented. From this remove an intentionality or conscious method seems apparent but at the time it was all instinct, a response to the volition of unstoppable forces. At one point I took advantage of another boundary, hanging my microphone on a wire fence, then walking away as I played sounds that were snatched from me as if by invisible hands.

Later I listened to the recording and felt a shift away from the centrality of myself as singular humanity, beginning to hear sound as an ear, like a shell – the wind’s course over rough land and stone walls, the rattling fence, the bleating of the sheep, all opening up and gathering together the sounds passing through, brushed away, dying away with my slivers of breath only a part of this flow of forces. Other examples of Mary Morrison’s remarkable singing have been given an afterlife, notably a recording by Alan Lomax of her interpretation of canntairreachd, the mouth music used in the oral teaching of Pibroch, an astonishing virtuosity of voice and line, again relocated to an echo chamber as if the hard notes of some unknown archaic instrument were rising up from the burial chamber at Ball Gate on Brent Fore Hill, then falling, as Adorno wrote, stars down to earth.

Jung & flutes

Who will go Mad with Me (a question of post-alchemical objects), (2013)

David Toop: string/winds/analogue and digital electronics/objects

Alasdair Roberts: voice/guitar/hurdy-gurdy/objects

Sylvia Hallett: strings/hurdy-gurdy/objects

Luke Fowler: film/analogue electronics/objects

performed at Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, Bates Mill Loft, Huddersfield, 24 November, 2013.

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Sound Thinking: Stuart Marshall’s Idiophonics

heterophonicsWood striking wood, quick, hard, BOK! Impact sound sprays out, an omni-directional striking of all reflective surfaces and returning through time to the distributed centres of listening, the BOK-space of audition. This is the basis of Stuart Marshall’s composition known as Idiophonics or Heterophonics, a piece performed only occasionally in the 1970s and now about to be revived.

I was present at a 1976 performance that began in 2B, Butlers Wharf, then spread out along the Thames and over Tower Bridge. Memories of the event are foggy (that may also have been true for the winter weather) but I wrote a contemporaneous account in Readings magazine (edited by Annabel Nicolson and Paul Burwell, 1977). In that essay I described Stuart’s work with sound as being “fairly unique in this country”. Of course he could be unique or not unique, not “fairly unique”; what I was trying to convey was an emergence of sound work, an engagement parallel to contemporary art practices such as structural film and video with their intellectual preoccupations (notably Lacan) that rejected the rituals of music. As an approach it was rare though not unknown.

The piece began with three people – Stuart Marshall, Jane Harrison and Nicolas Collins – striking closely-pitched woodblocks, moving away from each other every time their strikes coincided. In a second phase they took up aerosol klaxons (“used in America for scaring off intruders and bears”, as I wrote in the Readings essay) and moved out into the freezing night: “One of the players stayed close to the building, one moved along the river to the right and the third walked out over Tower Bridge. The sounds bounced back and forth in a most spectacular way for quite some time – after a little while most of the audience left the rather precarious platforms which jut from the doors and huddled around an electric fire. Conversations started up and the piece took on the dimensions of a social gathering punctuated by alternately mournful and strident honking from outside.”

David Cunningham was present – his photograph of a murky Tower Bridge was used to illustrate my writing. Nearly 40 years later he recalls as little as me. “I remember talking to Gavin Bryars,” he tells me in an email, “as the ship approached Tower Bridge which remained closed until the last possible minute. There was a possibility that the klaxons were confusing whatever signalling system the bridge uses and some speculation about another maritime disaster for Gavin to turn into a score. I have a feeling the ship sounded a klaxon too.”

Within these accounts there are indications of a new way to be within the experience of a sound work. Nothing of the event could be conveyed through secondary media – you had to be there – but to behave as a conventional ‘audience’ was clearly silly. At the time, Nic Collins recounted the unfolding of a Connecticut concert hall performance, the klaxons growing fainter in the distance until inaudible, the audience sitting patiently in silence and then applauding when the players returned.

There are things that could be said here about the development of sound art, about the influence of Alvin Lucier, about echolocation, about bats and blindness, ships and sirens, temples and time, and those 18th century travellers in the Lake District who used cannon fire to enjoy the romantic sublime of echoes bouncing around the lakes. I think always of Giovanni di Paulo’s 15th century tempera panel, Saint John retiring to the Desert, Saint John emerging from a city gate, a small bag of possessions slung from a stick; in the centre of the painting he can be seen again at the mouth of a mountain pass, an echo of himself dwarfing the tiny buildings depicted on the plain below. This technique is known as ‘continuous narrative’. “The artist’s intention in showing the same figure more than once was clearly to indicate the passing of time,” wrote Alexander Sturgis in Telling Time.

paolo88Each medium is limited by comparison with the body’s versatility. For Aby Warburg, the inherent interest in Italian Early Renaissance painting lay in its attempts to represent movement, an evocation of Antiquity in which the body was caught up, as Philippe-Alain Michaud described it (in Aby Warburg and the Image in Motion), “. . . in the play of overwhelming forces, limbs twisting in struggle or in the grip of pain, hair flowing, and garments blown back through exertion or the wind . . . He replaced the model of sculpture with that of dance, accentuating the dramatic, temporal aspects of the works.”

Music has fewer problems with time but its innate desire is to rigorously control space, to bring sounds together in coherence and spatial focus, as a kind of illusory object. Idiophonics, by contrast, pulls the elements apart to distribute them in space, leaving the more inert variety of audience stranded in time with only an empty object to contemplate. David Cunningham has recently noted my confusion of idio- with ideo- in the 1977 text. As he points out, the prefix idio- denotes uniqueness, privacy, a personal quality, as in idiosyncratic or idiomatic, but it also describes that which is distinct, unique or separate. Perhaps this latter meaning is what Stuart had in mind, a separating out of sounds, or like me, could he have been mixing up idio- with ideo-?

Stuart is not here to be asked – he died of an Aids-related illness in 1993. A strange thing: we were born within two days of each other in 1949 and found ourselves assigned to the same work table, same teaching group, at Hornsey College of Art in 1967, our first year of art school. Within that year we were the only students with a developed interest in experimental music so the coincidence, from this perspective of passed time, seems marked. Our conversations about La Monte Young, AMM and Ornette Coleman helped to make the prospect of this new venture, what we now call sound art or audio culture, more tangible than it might have been had we been alone in our enthusiasms. Stuart went on to study with Alvin Lucier at Wesleyan University, became a pioneer of video art, then an HIV/Aids activist and filmmaker until his death at the age of 44.

Read the online biographies or obituaries and they emphasise the latter stages of his career. This seems as it should be yet because of my personal contact with him and my predilections I consider him to be one of the unsung pioneers of sound art in the UK. In Musics 9 (1976) I reviewed a video screening of Stuart’s work at the London Filmmakers Coop; even from my brief descriptions it is apparent that video offered the technical means for him to explore interdependence of hearing and seeing: a bottle smashing in silence, the interior of a mouth and its ambient roar. In 1979, during the Music/Context Festival of Environmental Music at the London Musicians Collective, Stuart performed a solo version of Idiophonics from within a canoe paddled by Paul Burwell. I photographed the event as they glided off over the water, Stuart with an aerosol klaxon in hand. That photograph is not available to me at the moment but the memory is fresh enough, sound blasts ricocheting off the high walls lining Camden Canal. By that time, music was out of its box, sound thinking no longer “fairly unique”.

Idiophonics will be performed in Sculpture 2, David Toop and Rie Nakajima invite Angharad Davies, Lina Lapelyte, Daniela Cascella with a performance of Stuart Marshall’s Idiophonics.

Cafe Oto Project Space, 1-7 Ashwin Street, London, E8 3DL.

Thursday 11th July.

Performance begins 8.15 sharp.

http://www.cafeoto.co.uk/sculpture-2-rie-nakajima-david-toop.shtm

http://www.barbican.org.uk/artgallery/event-detail.asp?ID=15043

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A falling fourth or fifth

woodpeckerBitterly cold this morning in Queens Wood but not too cold to hear the woman calling her dogs with a fluting falling call – ooh oooh – that reminded me of the similar calls my mother would sound out over garden fences when she wanted to speak to a neighbour, often using it in lieu of the doorbell as she stood on their front path. When I was a child I thought of this ‘attention’ melody as a normal and unremarkable mode of female vocalisation (and clearly it remains so for women of a certain age); now I hear it as an ethnomusicologist might once have heard whistle language in Gomera, weeping in death ceremonies or the kind of tumbling shouts used in Papua New Guinea to communicate from one hillside to another. Vernacular improvised language; mostly overlooked and forgotten.

Woodpeckers were drumming in the distance, their time of year. I thought of something Daniela Cascella wrote recently in her blog, En Abime (enabime.wordpress.com) . . . “a problematic tendency, in field recording, toward the dissolution of the recording subject into the field.” I hear the woodpeckers as distance event, spatial, a communicative calling, a temporal marking of season and life cycle, but the energy of the event is extra-human in its sudden bursting and equally sudden cutting. Not a human aesthetic. A drummer’s imitation would tend to force emphasis to the front of the event (maybe a press roll comes closest to the mechanics of the woodpecker and the tree). As I walked my attention was caught by a small piece of card fixed to a tree with rusted safety pins. A few lines were typed on the card, a Buddhist idea of life being in the mind. Who is the recording subject, I wonder? Fixed by a recording device none of these sounds carry with them the associative thoughts, emotions and memories of the primary listener, the experience of improvising a hearing event; a proportion of their interest disappears in the sharing of sound, replaced by whatever is stimulated or not in new listeners.

As I write this I am listening to a recording, “Flowing Water” (Liu Shui), performed by Kuan P’ing-hu on Guqin, released in 1969 by the Anthology Record and Tape Corporation (in 1977, this same piece was sent into outer space by NASA on the Voyager spacecraft). The music uses many technical devices to convey the complexity of flow – too many devices for Chinese scholars at its publication in 1876, who disdained its “lack of constraint and premeditated showiness”, according to Fredric Lieberman’s LP notes. Yet it communicates the way in which humans construct events by translating impossible complexity into something comprehensible, rich in associative feelings and ideas. Of all these methods of recording – inner reflection, text, recording device or instrument – which one conveys an experience or memory while leaving the least burdensome trace?

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The Woman Seen Sweeping the Sea: Annabel Nicolson escaping notice.

If a piano becomes silenced through dereliction, keys detached like so much loose kindling, is it still a piano? I asked that question, silently to myself, watching Annabel Nicolson’s Piano Film (Camden Arts Centre, Film in Space, group show selected by Guy Sherwin) and asked another, more troubling question, of whether Annabel’s work is still her work when she is not present? “It is what happens to things when they are not being looked at that puzzles me,” she once wrote.

I had not become unconscious of her work, not turned away from it. Last summer, after lengthy deliberation and equivocation I wrote an extended essay on the subject of Circadian Rhythm. This concert was devised by Evan Parker as a continuous 24-hour performance for eight players – himself, myself, Paul Lytton, Paul Lovens, Max Eastley, Annabel Nicolson, Paul Burwell and Hugh Davies – for Music/Context, the festival of environmental music that I organised for the LMC in 1978. Edited sections had been released on an Incus LP in 1980 but now Evan was proposing a release of the complete 13 hours of playing achieved on that July night 35 years ago. Paul Burwell and Hugh Davies had since died; in preparing my essay I spoke to the remaining players but Annabel’s communications dwelled only on the difficulty of beginning to speak about it, then on the impossibility of the task. She was living in the Northwest Highlands of Scotland, “with gales to listen to often.” Perhaps in the spring, she said. I am ashamed to say I could not wait any longer.

Escaping Notice was the title of a book she published in 1977. Prophetic, maybe? I spent time with the fragments on display at Camden – all silent amid whirring clamour – trying to find within them my own memory of Annabel, finding only tantalising wisps of her presence stuffed into that most abject means of archival display: the PVC display book. Escaping Notice also possesses that fugitive quality: its thin translucent papers through which texts and photographs are faintly visible; the events which are as nondescript as the flatness of Norfolk she describes with such cunning wit; the modesty of her anecdotes undermined by their doubtful veracity, and a detached third person self-anthropology which  documents the artist, Miss Nicolson, as log rolling down a hill, or film star in the company of Mike Leggett, or sweeping the sea. As far back as 1974, she was engaged in low-key pursuit of the now earnestly fashionable practice of ‘walking’ (or should that be ‘practice of walking’?), though we may surmise that these walks were not strenuous, encompassing as they did visits to jumble sales, buying postcards in the Garrigil post office or the observation of stick insects flying in strict formation, noted while Miss Nicolson lay in a cornfield above Corton Denham. In many of these works she calls upon the humble medium of local newspapers to recount the exotic life of a stranger, passing through rural communities as a woman of mystery, searching for the ineffable, the minor incident barely worthy of comment, or the more serious business of vanishing footpaths. Her observations of the woman sweeping the sea in July 1975 form a brief document worthy of the disinterested observer, perhaps a man detained for a few moments while walking his dog: “Her lack of direction was plain and she seemed to have plenty of time. After a while one realised that she was less distinct, though not actually further away. Perhaps it was deliberate this trick of making herself part of the background of being just slightly out of focus.”

Now she is more than slightly out of focus, a subtle commingling of dry wit, ephemerality and modesty conspiring with her physical absence to render her almost invisible. Of course I am happy to see her represented in a London exhibition, in a context to which she belongs, yet I remember her differently, as somebody who thought deeply about convergent strategies in the 1970s and created opportunities as an organiser, publisher, writer, curator and artist to open up spaces to those strategies.

Much of her thinking seemed to embrace that which is not there or cannot be objectified, and so she was drawn to sound, to smoke, to light and dark, to silence. In a recorded conversation between Annabel, Steve Beresford and Paul Burwell (MUSICS, no. 8, July 1976), conducted at the old Piano Factory in Camden Town, north London, she spoke of finding a piano in the yard of the factory: “It was deteriorating and when it rained the keys started to float. It played by itself and the keys moved around quietly.” Magic is always present as a possibility, quiet magic in the background, and the possibility of the artist slipping away quietly, to become anonymous as the work becomes autonomous. Phenomena are left to take care of their own work of entrancement.

For a later issue of MUSICS magazine (no. 20, December 1978) published after the Music/Context Festival, she contributed a page that collected together the sources of her participation in Circadian Rhythm but also captured the non-dimension field of its unfolding, as an event within time and darkness. So there are marks, evidence of charring, fibrous plant materials, and references to the song of women pearl divers of Taiwan, sparks thrown into water, a hidden fire, lights in trees, the room filled with smoke, and from Mark Twain perhaps, two stories: the frogs of New Orleans whose song would rise in volume when the steamboats passed, and then thick fog on the river, people in small vessels banging tins pans so the steamboats wouldn’t run over them. Hidden drumming, she wrote.

Even then she was rather hidden herself, one of the only women in a cluster of male dominated scenes. Again, her anthropology came into play, particularly in the improvised music setting of the London Musicians Collective. “One of the things that puzzled me,” she wrote in Resonance magazine (vol. 8, no. 2/vol. 9, no. 1, 2000) was just how little the musicians, all men at that time, seemed to talk to each other. Often they would meet and with barely a word prepare to play together. There appeared to be very little communication in any recognisable sense. Then somehow out of this apparent absence of communication would come the most wonderful sounds.” At the same time, she was acutely conscious of her own voice. Her essay – Transcript from indistinct recording of a talk performed in the reading room of Slade School of Art 13/3/79 (MUSICS, no 22, June 1979) is an object lesson in what we now call reflexivity, or performativity, the question of the voice (particularly the female voice) as social medium, performance tool, expressive and reflective marker of the self, along with the necessity of listening with a willingness to understand. “I’ve been thinking recently,” she wrote in 1978, “that performances are almost like lectures, focussing thought as a means of sounding out what is most urgent in one’s mind.” Reading that again took my breath away, since it is almost exactly what I have been thinking about my own work in recent years. Sometimes we internalise a borrowed thought, unconsciously make it our own, and there it lies sleeping for years, until shaken awake by the right circumstances.

What her talk at the Slade made clear is that there was no such thing as a definable ‘practice’ or ‘intact’ work, as she put it; rather an evolving form of performance which might take many forms. For this there is no validation, no archive, only the ghostly trace of somebody fishing in darkest night in search of a quarry barely distinguishable from its environs. When sound art is discussed, or improvised music, or performance art, or the voice, or writing about sound, ‘Miss Nicolson’ has somehow slipped the net, despite her centrality to the evolution of these interrelated arts. This seems to me to be a profound injustice, but also the way of things. Monuments are constructed and under cover of darkness small chisels chip away at their presumption and perfection.

MUSICS magazine (spanning the years 1975-1979) is a treasure trove of ideas and information but one of the pieces I treasure most is a conversation between Annabel and Max Eastley. They are two of my favourite artists and much-loved friends, that’s one reason why, but they have a sensibility in common which is strengthened by their exchange of ideas, and the ideas are as intoxicating as they are fragile: the night-blooming sirius that opens only one night of each year; a tree shadow frozen in ice; the blazing tar barrels of Shetland Island rites; Gaelic song not as folk music but as reverence for the phenomena of its subject; a raft of straws; fireflies in cages and oily birds, threaded through with wicks, flame spouting from their mouths; the effect of Galloway dykes on frightened sheep; the projected image of a bird that was, in fact, a crack in a glass roof; the shock of twigs cracking very loudly as she walked on them. Coming and going. The presence of materials. Scattered images but potent, they exemplify the open work. In the sound of the voice they find cohesion. “Nothing else is needed, just the means you have, like your voice,” she wrote. “Performance is a struggle and in a sense things are coming from far away because they are coming from something silent and making a huge leap towards being audible. Something very ancient about it.”

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FLAT TIME/sounding: the absent desire object

FLAT TIME page 1A question to be asked: why compose for improvisers? Questions are directed at time: what are the possibilities for articulating time? Improvisations splinter time. Hit a sheet of glass with a hammer and if the tap achieves the right velocity then the glass will splinter in many directions without smashing to pieces. To look at the glass is to see a maze of multidirectional lines but the evanescent surface of the glass adds a further dimension: each line may extend into depth or project into invisibility.

This is the temporal nature of many improvisations, a close engagement with the suggestibility of materials, the crazed lines of interconnectivity, the openings of air and the potentiality of bodies. A more global view is barely possible. How many improvisations last for two minutes, or stretch unexpectedly to seven hours? There are practicalities at work, of course, but also a feeling of too much expediency. An interesting current trend in London is to present many short performances in a single evening; sets may be 15 or 20 minutes long. Is this for the sake of variety, a recognition of strength in depth that echoes faintly the principle of ‘something for everybody’ typical of the Victorian Music Hall? Or is it symptomatic of a deeper current of contemporary life, the kind of syndrome churned into zeitgeist anxiety by newspaper columnists in 750 words or less, an inability to concentrate, perhaps, or the need for constant change?

Flat Time page 2FLAT TIME/sounding began as a composition commission but its possibilities reflected an idea that has been with me since 1971. In that year I began to imagine a looping continuum of what we now call research and practice: to study the echolocating clicks of bats and to improvise with clicks, for example. In that year I was playing in a duo with Paul Burwell and ‘writing’ compositions that might be just a title, a mood, a minimal percussion figure or guitar line. Both of us were taking part in the first John Stevens workshops for improvisation, in which John isolated tendencies and stimulated listening skills with short verbal scores. “Click Piece” was one of them: play the shortest sound you can find on your instrument. Simple (or not).

Recently I listened to Angharad Davies and Rie Nakajima playing a duo at Café Oto. The event seemed more a consideration than a performance, a weighing of durations whereby autonomic percussive objects came to life as temporary sound events, their shifting placement in the room (decreasing and increasing the time taken for sound to reach a listener’s ears) bisected by Angharad’s penetrating sliver sounds or soft legato, delivered as if from hiding as she moved behind clusters of listeners or into near or distant view. You couldn’t say this was improvisation, not in the common usage of the term, but nor was it composition. Like a lot of music right now (Wandelweiser, for example), it seemed to be in search of terminology, or not in search of anything like that so much as working out the practice of how music comes together when all the old ideological divisions have gone soft.

Flat Time page 3The duo with Paul Burwell was sometimes criticised for its adherence to ‘compositions’ (slight as they were); there was a pressure to ‘just play’, to work with nothing but sounds. Now I am older I can appreciate the violence of this break with the past, but was it all so simple: just a click answered by another click and you had music? Unable to help myself I resist improvisation’s resistance (while asking myself if improvisation is a thing, or improvising individuals, or dominant groups, or a tradition, or a habit) to any kind of footnoting, any explicit reference to external ideas. In my late teens I came across a recording of duetting by tropical bou-bou shrikes. Maybe this was the most basic model for improvisation: one bird signals, the other replies. They seesaw back and forth, moving exquisitely in and out of phase as they do so. One very striking aspect of duetting behaviour is the tendency for one partner to complete the pattern if the other is absent, as if sounding the romantic tragedy of Abelard and Heloise. “When one bird died, the survivor sang the complete melody which it had never before been heard to sing alone,” wrote T. Hooker and Barbara L. Hooker in a 1969 essay on the subject. ‘Empty’ time is filled with the vocalisations of the absent desire object, just like a solitary player competing at chess with the shadow self of the self.

Flat Time page 4Another inspirational discovery came from reading Samuel Akpabot’s essay – Random Music of the Birom, published in African Arts in 1975. Akpabot compares the music of northern Nigerian one-note flute ensembles of the Birom people to the innovations of European composition after 1918: “the tone clusters and the harmony created by the individual melodic lines of Bartok, the random approach of Cage, the special effects of Dallapiccola, the polyrhythms of Stravinsky, the distorted tones of Boulez.” The important distinction for him was what he described as a freedom of expression. Of greater interest for me was the nature of this freedom – not a freedom solely confined to instrumental pitches but at a level of social engagement, through which each player articulated his relation to the group, to his instrument, to his own body and to the environmental setting of the musical event. So Akpabot’s notation of the piece includes, in parentheses, extra-musical events: “(does a little dance), (blows his nose), (urinates), (spits), (bickering between fl. 3 & 4), (laughs at fl. 3), (chats with crowd), (tunes drum).”

Flat Time page 5If John Latham’s theories of time and language, in particular his roller blind paintings and one-second drawings, are at the heart of FLAT TIME/sounding as a score, my own researches have shaped its form, its ‘footnotes’, its texture and at least some of the influence it exerts on its performers. That is not to say that they are condemned to confinement within my eccentricities and obsessions; simply that they make themselves open to its duration, its markers, its ritual and its intimations of other worlds that lie close to sound escaping from a mouth, expelled through a tube, ingested within the body and returned transformed, as if to the absent desire object whose place is filled by strangers.

FLAT TIME/sounding will be performed at Raven Row, London, E1 (http://www.ravenrow.org/events/flat_time_sounding/), by Elaine Mitchener, John Butcher, Aleks Kolkowski, David Toop, at exactly 7.00pm, Thursday 13 December, 2012, for one hour exactly.

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